Best Reference Works of 2021

Though 2021 was another tough year, it also brought spots of joy with these 37 stellar titles selected by the LJ Best Reference Committee.

Though 2021 was another tough year, it also brought some spots of joy—including visually arresting, thought-provoking, and inspiring reference works, as exhibited in these 37 stellar examples selected by the LJ Best Reference committee. With COVID still raging, health is top of mind; Joseph P. Byrne and Jo N. Hays’s Epidemics and Pandemics: From Ancient Plagues to Modern-Day Threats reminds readers that contagious disease has long been a part of human history, while The Medicine Book explores the great strides humanity has made coping with it, including the development of vaccines.

All over the country, schools and libraries continue to see challenges to books that offer accurate and nuanced depictions of history—books that highlight the experiences of people of color and LGBTQIA+ people and that discuss the oppression endured by these communities. Titles such as Deborah D. Douglas’s Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a travel guide to sites crucial to the civil rights movement, illustrates how tightly past and present are bound. And our list of free resources includes a database from the Washington Post that lists the 1,700 members of Congress who enslaved Black people—the kind of history lesson still omitted from many textbooks but that is vital to a true understanding of our past. Several of our best print and free resources explore another pressing issue, climate change; Christina Conklin and Marina Psaros’s stunning The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis is an especially strong example.

With many people actively seeking works by marginalized authors, Jamise Harper and Jane Mount’s Bibliophile: Diverse Spines is a must, both for librarians making purchasing decisions and for patrons checking out books. In our Best Databases section, we spotlight Baker & Taylor’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Analysis Powered by CollectionHQ, another key tool as librarians continue to ensure that their collections represent the experiences of those from marginalized backgrounds.

Finally, with the more people choosing to stay home to avoid the risk of the Omicron variant, many of these selections speak to readers’ emotional needs—books that let patrons travel vicariously, like Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras’s Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide, as well as texts that let them get up close with wildlife without leaving the house, such as Joel Sartore’s National Geographic Photo Ark Wonders: Celebrating Diversity in the Animal Kingdom. The year to come may be a hard one, but the books, databases, and free resources listed here will meet readers where they are, whether they’re seeking information or simply a few moments of pleasure and respite.—Mahnaz Dar


Chicago Architecture Center & John Hill. Guide to Chicago’s Twenty-First-Century Architecture. Univ. of Illinois. ISBN 9780252085710.

Architect Hill’s enjoyable guide to 200 marvelous buildings and landscapes constructed in Chicago since 2000 shines in its depiction of the city’s culture and history. Clearly discussing state-of-the-art land use practices, creative infrastructure improvements, and energy-efficient construction, the volume provides a window into best practices in urban architecture, development, and planning.

Hall, Richard A. Robots in Popular Culture: Androids and Cyborgs in the American Imagination. Greenwood. ISBN 9781440873843.

Who knew the Tin Man, Steve Austin, and HERBIE the Love Bug would be considered robots one day? With entries on everything from HAL 9000 to the Batcomputer, Hall’s (Pop Goes the Decade: The 2000s) entertaining, stimulating scrutiny of fictional depictions of robots explores concepts such as whether owning sentient automatons is slavery, the idea of playing god, and robots as heroes and villains.

Harper, Jamise (text) & Jane Mount (text & illus.). Bibliophile: Diverse Spines. Chronicle. ISBN 9781797211916.

Reader beware—“to be read” lists will be burgeoning after a perusal of Harper (creator of the #DiverseSpines hashtag) and Mount’s (My Ideal Bookshelf) volume devoted to books by BIPOC authors. Divided by genres and age groups, filled with buoyant illustrations, and featuring recommendation of BIPOC-owned bookstores, this attractive, info-laden work is ideal for librarians seeking readers’ advisory help and patrons eager to diversify their reading.

Heim, David. Saws, Planes, and Scorps: Exceptional Woodworking Tools and Their Makers. Princeton Architectural. ISBN 9781616899240.

The market for custom-crafted, artisanmade hand tools has flourished over the last few years. Woodworker Heim offers overviews of four small woodworking shops and their inspired leaders, as well as capsule histories and information on tool specialties. Organized by tool type (workbenches, chisels), chapters include interviews with solo designers. Abundant photos showcase tools in use, and clean-lined close-ups emphasize sleek design, gleaming metal, and polished wood grains.

Race in American Television: Voices and Visions That Shaped a Nation. 2 vols. Greenwood. ed. by David J. Leonard & Stephanie Troutman Robbins. ISBN 9781440843051.

Scholars Leonard and Robbins argue that television isn’t merely a source of entertainment; it’s also a place where stereotypes and racist tropes are reinforced, where activists have demanded accurate representation, and where the struggle for racial equality has played out. Perceptive entries chronicle the history of TV and illustrate how U.S. politics and culture influence—and are influenced by—this ever-evolving medium.


Keene, Adrienne (text) & Ciara Sana (illus.). Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present. Ten Speed. ISBN 9781984857941.

Scholar and author Keene, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, celebrates 50 American Indian, Ka¯naka Maoli (Hawai’i), and Alaskan tribal members who “move Indigenous people from the historic past into the modern present and the future.” Elegantly crafted profiles spotlight a gourd artist, a congresswoman, and an engineer, among other leaders and creators. Strong-lined portraits by Sana, a Chamorro artist, saturated with hues of gold, salmon, and terra-cotta, enhance entries.

Pender, Rick. The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781538115862.

Theater critic Pender’s compendium serves not only as an overview of Stephen Sondheim’s life and work but also as a chronicle of American musical theater itself. With entries on Sondheim’s influences and collaborators and those who starred in his works—among them Oscar Hammerstein, Goddard Lieberson, and Elaine Stritch—this impeccably researched, thorough volume will charm fans of the late composer and offer newcomers a strong jumping-off point to learn even more. (See LJ’s interview with Pender, PenderInterview.)


An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits & Nuts: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Atelier. ed. by Marina Vitaglione & others. ISBN 9781733622042. 

This charming collection of nearly 300 amazingly realistic watercolors, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1886 and 1942, with accompanying text by Vitaglione (Solastalgia) and other contributors, will have readers salivating for fruits and nuts they may never have tasted before. The book also explores the role of various fruit and nut classes in mythology, artwork, and advertising. Art lovers, trivia fans, and gardeners will be mesmerized.

Lonely Planet’s Best Places To Eat in Every Country. Lonely Planet. ISBN 9781838690472.

The writers of Lonely Planet highlight the best dining spots across the globe, with more than 2,000 recommendations from every country in the world and from among numerous types of establishments, from Michelin-starred restaurants to food trucks. Many of the entries include color photographs and illustrations. The result is a trove of eateries that will provide pleasure, and lasting memories, for travelers.

Moldvaer, Anette. The Coffee Book. DK. ISBN 9780744033731.

Those curious about one of the world’s most popular beverages will be delighted by this attractive guide from Moldvaer (cofounder, Square Mile Coffee Roasters): information on coffee growing and production, growing regions, coffee-making equipment and more, Easy-to-understand recipes and coffee-making techniques will have readers channeling their inner barista and brewing up elaborate concoctions.

Wong, Cecily & Dylan Thuras. Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide. Workman. ISBN 9781523502196.

A milk bar in Rwanda, the Arabic dallah, and a liquor designed for Edward VII to imbibe while driving are among the many subjects of Wong (Diamond Head) and Thuras’s (cofounder and creative director, Atlas Obscura) eclectic guide to noteworthy foods, culinary traditions, and restaurants around the world and throughout history. With this tempting offering, Atlas Obscura makes good on its promise that “wonder can be found around every corner.”


Byrne, Joseph P. & Jo N. Hays. Epidemics and Pandemics: From Ancient Plagues to Modern-Day Threats. 2 vols. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440863783.

Historians Byrne and Hays place current COVID struggles against the backdrop of epidemics throughout history. The first volume explores transmission vectors, ways in which diseases arise, advancements in prevention, and political and social factors, while the second highlights 52 epidemics, arranged chronologically, from malaria in ancient Rome to recent measles outbreaks in the United States. Accurate, accessible, and appealing writing, with occasional illustrations, suggested reading, and a glossary, makes this a standout.

The Medicine Book. DK. ISBN 9780744028362.

Exploring medicine from prehistory to modern times, this concise and accessible work addresses a sweeping range of topics, including shamans, midwifery, gene therapy, nanomedicine, and pandemics. Gorgeous illustrations, sidebars, and time lines, as well as biographical blurbs of major figures, a glossary, and a thorough index, make this an absorbing overview of what is sometimes viewed as a dry subject.

Vayttaden, Sharat & Dana Gustafson. Illustrated Human Anatomy: The Authoritative Visual Guide to the Human Body. Firefly. ISBN 9780228103035.

Detailed illustrations, vivid colors, and magnified views dominate the pages of science and research fellow Vayttaden and medical doctor Gustafson’s dynamic guide to the human body. Chapters organized by system drill down into subtopics (smooth muscles, facial muscles) and conclude with notes on major disorders and injury. Medical graphics by SciPro, boxed text, and diagrams aid in understanding occasionally complex body function explanations.


The Black History Book. DK. ISBN 9780744042146.

Visually stunning and crammed with incredible detail, this book deftly chronicles Black history in all its complexity, from antiquity to modern times, with the intent of not only addressing injustices but also recognizing Black accomplishment. Throughout, the narrative seamlessly connects one era to another as each section expertly builds upon prior discussion and explores the full range of Black experiences.

Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World. National Geographic. ed. by Ann Williams. ISBN 9781426221989.

Edited by National Geographic writer Williams, this work tells the exciting story of humanity via 100 of the greatest archaeological discoveries, including the earliest known human footprints, in Tanzania; evidence of the ancient city of Troy, in Turkey; China’s Terra-Cotta Warriors; and the wreck of the Titanic. Accompanied by arresting photographs and captivating information on the future of archaeology, the volume entices browsers and history buffs alike.

The Schlager Anthology of Black America. Schlager. 3 vols. ed. by Dan Royles. ISBN 9781935306580.

Spanning the 1540s to 2017, this collection of primary sources dedicated to Black history in America, curated by scholar Royles, includes a vast array of speeches, legal and government documentation, correspondence, and books, among them Thurgood Marshall’s Equality Speech, an excerpt from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Frederick Douglass’s first editorial in the North Star. This thorough chronicle will delight readers and researchers fascinated by primary sources.


Selzer, Adam. Murder Maps USA: Crime Scenes Revisited; Bloodstains to Ballistics, 1865–1939. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500252598.

Selzer (H.H. Holmes: The True Story of the White City Devil) analyzes the most notorious homicides across the United States between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War II. Organized by geographic region, the entries contain case details, photographs and illustrations, and crime scene maps and floor plans. Though the graphic photos might be disturbing to some, those interested in true crime and forensics will be spellbound by this in-depth volume.

Vronsky, Peter. American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950–2000. Berkley. ISBN 9780593198810.

In this macabre work, author and historian Vronsky presents the history of American serial killers in the second half of the 20th century, an era that author Harold Schechter, in an interview with Slate, deemed the “Golden Age of serial murderers.” In gory detail, Vronsky adroitly describes the most notable cases while offering intriguing theories for the rise of serial murders.


Huff, Peter A. Atheism and Agnosticism: Exploring the Issues. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440870828.

In this addition to the “Religion in Politics and Society” series, scholar Huff explores primarily U.S. figures and topics from the 1800s forward, including Charles Darwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and the phrase "under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. An overview addresses the worldwide history of questioning beliefs and the challenges of defining athesm and agnosticism. Fascinating, even-handed, and enlightening.

Women and Religion: Global Lives in Focus. ABC-CLIO. ed. by Susan M. Shaw. ISBN 9781440871962.

Taking a feminist approach, scholar Shaw deftly explores the ways in which women all over the world are affected by religion; she considers violence against women, the intersection of religion and politics, the impact of faith on the LGBTQIA+ community, including nonbinary people, and more. Particularly noteworthy is the examination of the ways in which interpretations of sacred texts lead to sexism, constricting gender roles, and the erosion of rights.


Conklin, Christina (text & illus.) & Marina Psaros (text). The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis. New Pr. ISBN 9781620974568.

Artist and researcher Conklin and sustain ability expert Psaros explore the impact of climate change by revealing locations all over the world that are under threat. Most notable are Conklin’s striking maps, painted with water-soluble inks on dried seaweed. An important work that will inspire readers to address one of the most urgent issues of the 21st century.

Iconotypes: A Compendium of Butterflies and Moths; Jones’ Icones Complete. Univ. of California. ed. by Oxford Univ. Museum of Natural History & Richard I. Vane-Wright. ISBN 9780520386501.

Compiled by Vane-Wright (retired, Natural History Museum, London) and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, this gorgeous “enhanced facsimile” of illustrations and information on butterflies and moths draws from the work of amateur entomologist William Jones. With entomology history, a classification system, and maps, this is an invaluable resource for artists, butterfly lovers, and scientists.

James, Tim. Astronomical: From Quarks to Quasars; The Science of Space at Its Strangest. Pegasus. ISBN 9781643137872.

James, a science teacher and unabashed Star Trek fan with a specialty in computational quantum mechanics, delves into some of the harder-to-grasp space concepts, with humor and occasional line drawings. Topics ranging from “Our Freaky Universe” to “Actually, This Is Rocket Science” help readers wrap their heads around principles related to daily life, space travel, and the possibility of life on other planets. Approachable and educational.

Lovich, Jeffrey E. & Whit Gibbons. Turtles of the World: A Guide to Every Family. Princeton Univ. ISBN 9780691223223.

Among the most extraordinarily diverse creatures in the animal kingdom, turtles have survived for more than 200 million years, although about half of the current 350-plus species require conservation and protection. Ecologist Lovich and Gibbons’s (emeritus, ecology, Univ. of Georgia) guide to all turtle families, subfamilies, and genera captures their history, development, and characteristics flawlessly, with distribution maps, tables of information, in-depth commentaries, and incredible color photographs.

Moclock, Leslie & Jacob Selander. Rocks, Minerals, and Geology of the Pacific Northwest. Timber. ISBN 9781604699159.

This book from geologists Moclock and Selanderis is not only an in-depth study of the 13 physiographic provinces in Oregon and Washington—it’s also an amazing primer on basic mineral and rock identification and landscape foundation. With more than 400 dazzling photographs, illustrations, tables, and maps, as well as in-depth entries on 100 rocks, minerals, and fossil types in the Pacific Northwest, this is an excellent guide to basic geological concepts.

O’Shea, Mark. Lizards of the World: A Guide to Every Family. Princeton Univ. ISBN 9780691198699.

This superb introduction deftly explains how the approximately 7,000 species of lizards have adapted, evolved, survived, and even thrived in every imaginable habitat and terrain over centuries. Exploring lizard biology, behavior, habits, defense strategies, and dozens of other topics in compelling detail, with stunning visuals, herpetologist O’Shea showcases the beauty and history of these complex and resilient reptiles.

Sartore, Joel (text & photos). National Geographic Photo Ark Wonders: Celebrating Diversity in the Animal Kingdom. National Geographic. ISBN 9781426221910.

Continuing photographer Sartore’s project to document every animal species, this title bursts with breathtaking portraits of slinky snakes, majestic caribou, and nuzzling ducks, broken into four chapters: “Shape,” “Pattern,” “Extra” (special snouts, fantastic feathers), and “Attitude.” Pithy captions and occasional backstories of photography adventure add interest. Ecologically important and gorgeously presented.


Khanna, Nikki & Noriko Matsumoto. Race Relations in America: Examining the Facts. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440874000.

Sociologists Khanna and Matsumoto expertly tackle some of the most difficult—and relevant—topics on current American race relations, such as power and privilege, immigration, and the disproportionate impact of police brutality on Black people. With important content, superb supporting documentation, and insightful analysis, the work clearly demonstrates that though the United States is a multiracial society, its issues of racism are far from being resolved.

Rycroft, Robert S. & Kimberley L. Kinsley. Inequality in America: Causes and Consequences. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440865145.

This excellent compilation from scholars Rycroft and Kinsley brings readers up to date on the state of inequality in the United States. The content is rich and thought-provoking, with chapters on intergenerational mobility, food deserts, and payday loans as well as entries on long standing issues in education, housing, health, and law. An extended section on recommended public policies is a blue print for implementing fair and effective future solutions.

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Trans Studies. 2 vols. SAGE. ed. by Abbie E. Goldberg & Genny Beemyn. ISBN 9781544393810.

Defining “trans” as those whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth, scholars Goldberg and Beemyn make it clear that trans experiences vary greatly and have existed for millennia. Meticulously researched and well-written articles explore a range of subjects—citizenship, youth, reparative therapy, aging, medicine, and education—and will appeal to readers with an interest in a variety of fields, including the social sciences, history, politics, and health care.


Posnanski, Joe. The Baseball 100. Avid Reader: S. & S. ISBN 9781982180584.

Sports journalist and passionate baseball fan Posnanski compiles a list of the 100 all-time best baseball players, including athletes in the Negro Leagues who were unjustly excluded from the Major Leagues until 1947. The author acknowledges that many will take issue with his rankings but asserts that spirited debates among fans add to the fun of the game. Indispensable for anyone who loves the great American pastime.

Schwartz, David Asa. Modern Sports Around the World: History, Geography, and Sociology. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781440868795.

Scholar Schwartz selects 50 sports with global impact and representation, from skateboarding and BMX to volleyball and wrestling to e-sports. Schwartz covers historical context, globalization, where the sport is played today, economics, rules and equipment, important figures, scandals, and more. Global viewpoints and broad coverage of up-to-date topics such as safety concerns and gender equity make this a standout.


Burke, Annette LeMay (text & photos). Fauxliage: Disguised Cell Phone Towers of the American West. Daylight. ISBN 9781942084983.

Award-winning photographic artist Burke showcases cell phone towers in their landscapes, disguised as, for instance, lushly appointed trees, stark saguaro cacti, spindly pines, and a clock tower. Thoughtful endnotes enhance the monograph, touching on architectural trends, surveillance capitalism, and environmental concerns. Quirky and beautiful.

Cheshire, James & Oliver Uberti. Atlas of the Invisible: Maps and Graphics That Will Change How You See the World. Norton. ISBN 9780393651515.

A winner of the 2021 British Carto graphic Society Awards, this remarkable volume from Cheshire and Uberti (Where the Animals Go) examines “the invisible patterns that shape our lives” via maps that illustrate, for instance, light emissions around the world, the measurement of happiness by country, and the impact of climate change. A delightful work that will stir readers to try to make the world a better place.

Douglas, Deborah D. Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events That Made the Movement. Moon Travel. ISBN 9781640499157.

An authentic, inspiring travel guide that spotlights the places and voices most pivotal to the civil rights movement, as well as de- tailed information on sights, tours, shopping, events, food, music, and culture. Scholar Douglas’s writing is authoritative, fast-paced, and engaging, and her personal reflections are moving. Colorful pictures, maps, road grids, charts, timelines, and interviews round out the work. (See LJ’s interview with Douglas,

Great Cities: The Stories Behind the World’s Most Fascinating Places. DK. ISBN 9780744029222.

This charming tribute to cities, which have been part of the human story for 7,000 years, uncovers the history of some of the world’s greatest urban centers, including ancient cities such as Rome and Persepolis, river and maritime cities (e.g., Venice and Cape Town), and modern metropolises like Dubai and Beijing. With vivid photos, paintings, and maps, this gorgeous offering is a must.

Mahnaz Dar is Reference & Professional Reading Senior Editor, LJ & School Library Journal; Maggie Knapp is a Librarian, Trinity Valley School, Fort Worth, TX; Dave Pugl is a Librarian, Ela Area Public Library, Lake Zurich, IL; Laurie Selwyn formerly worked at the Grayson County Law Library, Sherman, TX; and Rob Tench is a Librarian, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA.


Best Databases 2021

Best Free Resources 2021


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